Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Appomattox", opera by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, plays at Kennedy Center

On Monday, November 16, 2015, the Kennedy Center offered a second performance following the Nov. 14  premiere of a new production of an expanded version of the opera “Appomattox”, music by Philip Glass, with a two-act libretto by Christopher Hampton. The Washington National Opera Orchestra was conducted by Dante Santiago Anzolini, and the stage work was directed by Tazewell Thompson.  The opera was first completed in 2005 and then revised, with an expansion of Act 2.

The Kennedy Center's site for the production is here.  Performances occur Nov. 14, 16, 18, 20, 21, and 22 in 2015.
The two Acts of the opera are set 100 years apart.  Act I covers the closing days of the War Between the States, starting with the fall of Richmond and leading to the signing of “surrender” at Appomattox in 1865.  The revised opera is long, and ended at 10:10 PM having started at 7 PM, with a half hour intermission.  

Act II covers the battle over the voting rights act of 1965.  The earliest version had stressed the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, which I remember well. 

The cast includes Tom Fox as Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Soloman Howard, Jr. as Frederck Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. David Pittinger as Robert E. Lee and Rdgar Ray Killen. Richard Paul Fink as Ulysses S. Grant and Ncholas Katzenbach, Melody Moore as Julia Grant and Viola Liuzzo, and Robert Brubaker as Wilmer McLean and J. Edgar Hoover. 
The stage was set up as a plantation house front, and adapted to all kinds of other scenes.  

The music was rather gentle (and always tonal), even more so than usual for Glass, and it followed Glass’s pattern of repeating phrases often in groups of four. 

Act I, after the surrender, has an epilogue concerning the near murder of a black journalist in 1873, and ends loudly but doesn’t give a final chord, but merely a high note in the strings.  Act II’s music builds up to a climax over “Hallelujah” (a controversy known now in the Bruckner Ninth) but then the music recedes into a long epilogue, especially a debriefing of  KKK prisoner (in for life without parole) in 2011.  The music ends quietly with a female chorus in C major.
There is quite a bit of humor about LBJ in the second half, with the boil on his ass, and about J Edgar and hints of his homosexuality.
After the performance, there was an extensive QA in the orchestra level, with the entire production crew, led by Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.  There was a question on the transformation of Robert E. Lee’s personality through one actor into the monstrous Killen, who plotted the murders of Chaney, Goodwin and Schwerner (wiki) and is presented as a terrorist. There was also a question of Hampton about having to rewrite the words of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, because of a rigorous copyright enforced by the King family (wiki on the legal case with CBS, here. )  The National Archives has a copy online in PDF format here.

There is a lot of  quality free video material (all of it "legal") about the opera on the Washington National Opera's own YouTube channel here.

It would sound logical that a Universal Studios or a Columbia Pictures would want to make an Oscar-season film based on the opera in a couple years, the sort of film that can open on a Christmas Day.
First three pictures: Appomattox, VA, my visit in 2005;  also visited Farmville that day.  Also, Pettus bridge in Selma AL, my visit, May 2014. 

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